A new novel by Ward Just, “American Romantic,” part of which is set during the Vietnam War, reminded me that we, the United States, may never learn anything.
The protagonist is an American foreign service officer. The book takes him through his life, but the part that is to the point today is his time as a young officer in Vietnam. His boss, the American ambassador, sends him off alone into the Vietnamese jungle in response to a suggestion, from a shadowy Frenchwoman, that maybe the Viet Cong would like to negotiate and not start fighting the Americans. (The war lasted another 10 years and cost some 58,000 American lives.)
What the young officer finds is that, although the Viet Cong may have welcomed the opportunity to present their point of view to the Americans, their primary objective was to get the Americans out of their country and out of their business.
The scary part, relevant now, is that not only do the Americans not understand the Vietnamese point of view, they don’t want to understand it. When the young officer reports back to the ambassador, the ambassador is fired, basically for having sent him to talk to the Viet Cong, and his mission is buried. He nevertheless goes on to have a successful career, including ambassadorships to several less-visible countries.
Vietnam at this point, in the mid-1960s, was a mess, not that different from some of the countries we are involved in now. There was the Saigon government, run by French-oriented Catholics, corrupt but comforting to a degree to Americans. They had soldiers who didn’t want to fight, preferring the Americans do that and pay them while they didn’t.
In the south there were the Viet Cong — communists or, better, Vietnamese nationalists — opposed to the Saigon government. The young American officer meets the Viet Cong representative and learns a lot. There was also the communist North Vietnam, supporting the Viet Cong and supported by China and the Soviet Union.
It isn’t really surprising that Americans couldn’t make sense of the complex Vietnamese situation. Americans came to Vietnam for short tours of duty or visits and usually met representatives only of the Saigon government, certainly not the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese.
As I read the Vietnam part of the book, excellent in no small part because the author was a journalist there during the war, I couldn’t help but think of U.S. envoys now trying to make sense of Afghanistan or Iraq.
Could an American representative possibly understand the motivation of members of the Taliban or new Islamic State if he met any? Worse, do we even want to know what they want — information essential to doing a deal with them? Part of the problem is that leaders of both the Taliban and Islamic State have concluded that what they want is for the Americans to be gone, and that is exactly what we find difficult to understand, much less to accept.
Mr. Just, by no means a severe critic of the United States, put it well: “American delusions, mostly of grandeur, often of the evangelical variety, the Good News of democracy … frightened people.” Worse, he also suggests that we can’t help ourselves: “ … [N]ationality is destiny,” he maintains, talking with two Germans. He considers Washington — “a greenhouse with the usual suffocating gases” — the nexus of the problem.
Mr. Just sees the military as central to the American affliction, citing the observation about 19th-century Prussia that it was not “a state with an army, but an army with a state.” His protagonist says that a lesson he learned from his Vietnam War experience was, the less meddling the better.
I agree, particularly now in mid-2014 as a tired America looks at the threat of its alleged leaders entangling it more deeply in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria, Ukraine or Yemen.
One problem is that, unless we would like to count Grenada in 1983 as an American victory, the last war the United States won was World War II, which ended in 1945, 68 years ago. Korea was — and still is — a stalemate. The Cold War blessedly never came to blows between the superpowers. Panama was us beating up on a much younger brother. The first Gulf War was a coalition operation, as were the various Balkan skirmishes of the Clinton era. Somalia? Better not to think about it.
We picked up the reputation of being invincible in World Wars I and II and, of course, have always been blessed — and effectively defended — by the fact that for the most part we have Canada to the north, Mexico to the south and oceans on both sides.
We should have learned a lot from the Vietnam War. It showed how ill-suited we are to engineer “regime change.” We signed on with a very corrupt, French-speaking Catholic minority government. When we tried to change horses to a series of generals, things got worse, not better. Vietnam also made it clear that pouring U.S. troops into a place like that doesn’t change the situation on the ground, and it eventually fractured our own society and wore out our own military.
Mr. Just’s protagonist gets it. It takes two deaths to teach him. The first is when he visits a village to inspect an aid project and faces a man carrying a dead woman in his arms. The second is when he is trying to find his way out of the jungle and has to kill a young boy who otherwise would have killed him.
This doesn’t mean the United States can’t interact with the rest of the world without causing damage or getting banged up itself. It simply means that we must make a mighty effort to understand the people with whom we are interacting, and, even more crucially, resist meddling in their affairs, particularly with military force, until we are absolutely certain we know what we are doing. In nearly all cases, that will mean we do not.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org,412-263-1976).